Stripping the South of Sentimentality
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”
Mothers of a different kind
I may never truly understand why I needed Byrne Miller as much as I did when I met her, in my early twenties. But I came a little closer when Pat Conroy told me the story of his re-parenting and the remarkable Julia Rendel.
Before he became a best-selling writer, Pat was a spectacularly unsuccessful teacher. He cared far too much, crossed way too many lines in the race-divided South. Readers of The Water Is Wide know of his ignominious firing from the one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island. Julia Randel’s husband worked for the Beaufort County school district. He was supposed to testify against Pat in the disciplinary hearing.
“Right up until the moment Ms. Randel told him he’d not have a bed to sleep in if he turned against their son,” Pat says. He uses air quotes around the word their, not son. She became a different kind of mother to him after her own son died, on the mound, playing ball with Pat. Her loyalty still amazes him. He laughs but there’s a hint of tears in his eyes as he tells the story. “She’s the kind of person you want to make proud. You’ll see when you meet her.”
And so, one sunny Beaufort Saturday afternoon, Pat drove me to meet his Byrne. Julia Randel’s front yard is big enough for sons to play baseball. She mows it herself, as if the boys might come back from Beaufort High School any minute, drinking CheerWine and munching on Moon Pies. The Buick she still drives squats squarely under the translucent shade of a green roofed carport. I never had the chance to meet Peg Conroy, but somehow I expect the woman who replaced her to be larger than life. She must surely be Southern through and through, able to hold the ends of a cast net in her teeth as she waits for shrimp to shimmy past the dock, able to make a husband be a man.
She is all that, in somewhere shy of ninety pounds. A hunched-over, candy-cane of a woman in a forest green sweater flings her arms wide open before she remembers the screen door is still between us. I am swamped with the sureness that if this frail woman could survive the death of her son and find the strength to mother others, there is a parallel planet of surrogate parents out there. She is the pardon awaiting those who fail: parents who aren’t supposed to exist but simply don’t know what to do with children. I don’t have any children of my own, but in the open arms of Julia Randel I see that I might be someone’s Byrne one day. I will watch for her, or him, listen for the pulses that ting against my emotional armor. It will be an honor.
Pat lets me have the first hug, explains that I’m a writer who once found the mother she needed in Beaufort. Ms. Randel apologizes for not having the groceries put up, as if we had made an appointment. He teases her mercilessly from that moment on, about her filthy pornography collection, her egregious gambling habit and foul-mouthed cussing. She laughs and swats at him through the air, her hand as delicate as bird bones.
“We raised him like one of our own,” she says. “Course we clearly didn’t do a very good job.”